Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Downhill (1927)

by Brent Reid
  • Not a murder in sight, but it’s still one of the darkest films in the Master’s canon
  • The star of The Lodger returns to suffer again in another story of the Wrong Man
  • Technically accomplished Hitchcock film, but uncomplicated Novello screenplay
  • Downhill restored: there are two versions, four transfer speeds and five scores!
  • Well represented on official home video, but some releases come with caveats

Note: this is one of 100-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.

Downhill aka C’est la vie (That’s life, 1927) French poster


Contents


Production

This is another extremely grim early turn from Hitch, focusing its unflinching gaze on public schoolboy Roddy Berwick’s grossly unfair fall from grace, being cast out into the wilderness and – spoiler alert – ultimate redemption. Hitch’s fourth film  was retitled When Boys Leave Home is the US, though When Boy Leaves Home would have been more accurate. That is, unless it’s a general screed against the dangers of sending your kids away to boarding school and the horrors that can befall them, to which I can personally attest. Although I didn’t get accused of knocking up any comely wenches, nor did I inherit a fortune, fall under the seductive power of an adulterous, gold-digging actress or become a gigolo to wealthy, dissolute older ladies. Unfortunately.

Downhill aka C'est la vie (1927, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) French pressbook

French pressbook; there, it was sardonically retitled “That’s Life”

It’s based on a hit 1926 West End play, Down Hill (different spelling), which starred the prodigiously talented Novello, who also co-wrote it with fellow actor-playwright Constance Collier under the combined pseudonym “David L’Estrange”. It was partly a tribute to the stage name of Collier’s prematurely deceased actor husband, Julian L’Estrange, and though she didn’t appear onstage, Collier also directed the play. Novello and Collier collaborated on several occasions as L’Estrange, most notably on 1924’s The Rat, the Story of an Apache, which she produced and was also filmed the following year, this time by Graham Cutts for Gainsborough. Collier was also in Downhill’s nightclub scene (right) and had a much more substantial role in Rope. Apart from Novello, the only cast member to transfer from Down Hill to Downhill was Hannah Jones, who played the gold-digger’s dresser, making a screen début in her first of six Hitchcocks. She appeared in a total of 12 films in similar cameo roles, also including pivotal silent Piccadilly, and the uproarious talkie I Lived with You, also starring Novello and based on his own play. As far as screen appearances go, that’s not a bad little haul.

I’ll be honest though: Downhill’s plot, such as it is, barely qualifies as even wafer thin with holes you could drive a coach and horses through. One would certainly expect better from one of the Great British Playwrights. What’s more, there are hardly any wholly sympathetic characters at all, not even the star of the piece. The only ones who don’t display any personality flaws are a handful of bit players who aren’t on screen long enough to do any wrong. But even two of those are painted quite poorly: a stereotyped Black man and woman in Roddy’s delirium scene, cast as ‘simple Negroes’. Even worse, one is literally painted: she’s a blacked-up white woman. It’s not somehow germane to the plot, as in a similar example in Young and Innocent; they just didn’t bother to get an actor who was naturally the right shade or even just have her play it as white. Annoyingly and ironically, she is  the nearest thing to a sympathetic female in the entire film.

Conversely, the film is often incorrectly lauded for featuring a sympathetic “transvestite” in a role that’s not inherently derogatory, as one of the few folk who show kindness to poor, beleaguered Roddy. In actual fact, the “sympathetic” ear she lends Roddy is purely contrived to get him back to hers for sex. What’s more her part is played by admittedly somewhat masculine-featured but definitely female Violet Farebrother, who went on to feature prominently in both Easy Virtue and Murder! A second instance of overt racism occurs when of the two sailors in the delirium scene, only the white one, actor Alf Goddard in his sole Hitchcock, receives a screen credit as “Sailor”. Meanwhile, the Black sailor isn’t mentioned at all; that still-unknown actor also appeared uncredited, natch, in at least The Ring and Champagne.

While we’re in the corrections department, many reviews wrongly claim Roddy is expelled for theft but they’re either based on poor quality, incomplete bootlegs or lazily copied from earlier, inaccurate sources. Sadly, such is the way with much writing and opinion on Hitch’s British work.

The story makes much more sense, as does the father’s over the top reaction, if we consider Roddy’s crime of passion was more of the love that dare not speak its name variety. Reading the pregnancy as the openly gay Novello’s subtle coding of an affair between his character and his best friend, things suddenly become a whole lot more interesting.

Perhaps the single most fascinating aspect of Downhill‘s original screening history is one which modern audiences can never experience:

“At one part of the film the screen projection fades out, a curtain rolls up, and without breaking the continuity, a scene from the play, as it was done on the stage, is actually acted by Mr Novello and his schoolboy friend. At the close they are summoned to the Head’s study, and as the curtain goes down the camera shows them walking down the cloisters dejectedly. This is an effective screen device and gives Mr Novello an opportunity of appearing in the flesh before his admirers.” – Sydney Tremayne, review in Eve magazine, 19th Oct 1927

Novello’s next screen appearance was starring in the superb, Alma Reville-scripted, The Constant Nymph (1928). Directed by Hitch’s British International Pictures colleague Adrian Brunel, it was restored by the BFI and is begging for a home video release. Brunel, of course, would later go on to write and part-film Elstree Calling before being sacked by BIP, who then asked Hitch to step in and finish the picture.

Ivor Novello and Sybil Rhoda in Downhill (1927, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) Spanish Divisa Blu-ray screenshot

There may be trouble ahead… Ivor Novello still on top of the hill with Sybil Rhoda, centenarian to-be. Spanish Divisa Blu-ray.

Ivor Novello and Sybil Rhoda in Downhill (1927, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) tinted nitrate print

1927 tinted nitrate print, which though still gorgeous has considerable fading

Downhill has a reputation as being a bit of an anomaly for Hitch. Though showing occasional flashes of inspiration, it’s frequently accused of possessing mostly workmanlike and sometimes even boring, predictable direction. Many consider it turgid, ponderous, perhaps his least artistically successful silent and a likely contender for worst British Hitchcock. Pam over at Silent London gets straight to the point with the travails of Roddy, and it’s hard to disagree completely with the slightly tongue-in-cheek forum posters here and here, who all echo the general consensus. But the constructive criticism of C. A. Lejeune, longstanding film critic for The Observer, really nailed its shortcomings in her contemporary review.

However, I’m going to go out on a limb here in brief defence of it. I hadn’t seen the film for a good few years and was inclined to agree with the above viewpoints. On revisiting it recently in preparation for this article, I went in with my expectations suitably lowered and was pleasantly surprised. Yes, the storyline is simplistic in the extreme and the denouement is unseemly swift and oh-so neat, but what the hell, it still gets to me. The ending reminds me somewhat of Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), and nobody in their right mind is criticising that. My advice is to look on Downhill as a cinematic tone poem, where the overall mood is more important than a discernible, gripping narrative. On that level, I think it succeeds magnificently.

Ivor Novello and Annette Benson in Downhill (1927, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) Spanish Divisa Blu-ray screenshot

Roddy and Mabel (Annette Benson) shot oh-so-artfully having a fun little jig. But it’s her and randy Tim who end up dirty dancing the horizontal tango in Ye Olde Bunne [in Ye Oven] Shoppe. Yes, it’s a spoiler. Spanish Divisa Blu-ray.

Ultimately, Downhill‘s biggest failing is that it’s directed by Hitchcock. Really: if it had anyone else’s name attached and wasn’t saddled with the overwhelming expectation of genius, it would be considered a significant British silent, and one with few caveats. As it is, the bar is set so high for anything he’s involved with that it can’t possibly live up to it.

But even if you do turn out not to be a fan of the film, don’t hold it against Hitch: with dozens of solid gold nuggets to his name he’s certainly entitled to hit the odd bum note. Indeed, many of his films, especially those made under more compromising conditions before he’d consolidated his star power in the mid-1930s, turned out much better than they had any right to be.

As noted in Nick Cooper’s upcoming book, Tube Screen (based on his comprehensive website), “the earliest film to feature the Underground, rather than being Asquith’s eponymous film, is Downhill. Hitch must have quite liked the Tube as a location, since he also used it in BlackmailRich and Strange (though mostly via stock footage from Underground), and Sabotage.” More fun facts:

Note Hitch’s use of unfeasibly large, high-ceilinged interiors throughout the film; foreboding and oppressive, they make the characters seem small and insignificant in their own story. It was a fairly common device of the era and Hitch employed the same trick to great effect in his follow-up, Easy Virtue. But my favourite example is the atmospheric The Thirteenth Guest (1932), a little Monogram programmer with big aspirations starring a young Ginger Rogers. It’s adapted from the eponymous 1929 novel by Armitage Trail which, though based on a similar premise, pre-empts Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939) by a wide margin. As is the case with most early Monograms, the film is in the pubic domain and there are many budget DVDs kicking around but all feature the same unexceptional transfer found on YouTube and the Internet Archive.

Sybil Rhoda played her namesake Sybil Wakely, sister of Roddy’s friend Tim and an initial prospective love interest. She also appeared in two other silents prior to DownhillSahara Love (1926) and Boadica (1927). Still going strong at the age of 101, she was interviewed here and here. She can also be seen in Starlings of the Screen (1925), a Stoll Film Company promo short, which appears as an extra on the BFI’s BD/DVD set of Anthony Asquith’s brilliant Shooting Stars (1927). Unfortunately, almost all the BFI’s copious extras are missing from Kino’s US BD and DVD, as with the releases of Underground (1928):

Ivor Novello, Annette Benson and Robin Irvine (rear) in Downhill (1927, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

“Roddy! You’re not taking this at all seriously. Hmm… maybe I’ll give Tim a go instead.” Ivor Novello, Annette Benson and Robin Irvine (rear)


Restoration

Ever since its première, Downhill had only been available in B&W but the 2012 Hitchcock 9 restoration, transferred at 20fps, revives its beautiful original tinting scheme. This includes an infamous, long-unseen lurid green sequence denoting mental and physical sickness. A few scenes that were never tinted remain in B&W.

“The original negative of Downhill does not survive so the restoration was based on two vintage nitrate prints – one from the BFI’s own collections and one on loan from the EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands. There was some compensation in working from original prints held as they had their original tinting and toning so that we have been able to restore the colour that Hitchcock used so expressively in his silent films.

Reproduction of the tones and tints found in three films, The Pleasure Garden, Downhill and The Lodger, has also constituted a major aspect of our restoration project. In the absence of scripts or other primary documentation, it appears that these are the only Hitchcock films which were released domestically in tinted and toned prints. Considerable pains were taken to determine the colour schemes of British release prints, and these have been followed in the restored print. As in the other Hitchcock restorations, a great deal of grading and digital clean up as well as the remaking of the intertitles, has had impressive results. New negatives of the restored film have been made for long term preservation and 35mm prints and DCPs made for exhibition.” – BFI programme notes

Timeline of Historical Film Colors: tinted and toned 1927 nitrate print

Annette Benson and Robin Irvine in Downhill (1927, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

“Oh Tim, you do it so much better than Roddy ever could… erm – dance, I mean.”

Downhill‘s restoration premièred on 20 September 2012 at the BFI Southbank, London, and was serenaded by a new five-piece a cappella score composed by classically-trained UK beatboxer Shlomo. If that sounds like an awkward match, fear not: for the most part, it was entirely appropriate and actually surprisingly sympathetic and moving. Here’s an artist interview including the BFI’s Bryony Dixon, a glowing review and a selection of video clips from a later performance. For good measure here’s an informative review from Paul Joyce, prolific author of the consistently excellent ithankyou blog. Unfortunately, at this point in time Shlomo’s score looks fairly unlikely to ever show up on a commercial release. This is, like many other excellent new silents scores, owing to the relatively modest yet still-prohibitive cost of recording, mastering and licensing it.

A new piano score was also commissioned from John Sweeney, who first performed it live on 24 September 2012, also at the BFI Southbank, and numerous times since. He also completed a studio recording which is so far only available on the current DCP and, as seen below, the UK-restricted digital version and latest French discs.

L-R: Annette Benson, Robin Irvine and Ivor Novello in Downhill (1927, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Mabel unfairly fingers Roddy for the dastardly deed. Annette Benson, Robin Irvine and Ivor Novello.


Home video releases

Downhill’s restored version has had a HD release in four countries to date, even more than The Lodger. And it gets three newly recorded piano scores to boot, to add to the one it had just a few years prior. The older transfer used on all pre-restoration DVDs is in jolly (hockey sticks?) good shape but only B&W and runs at a slightly-too-fast 24fps, equating to 85min but 82min on PAL DVD with its additional 4% speed-up. More significantly though, unless indicated otherwise, its releases are scoreless.

Preserved transfer

The overwhelming majority of quality silent film home video releases have professionally recorded custom scores but, very rarely, some are let out without any soundtrack whatsoever. Granted, home video editions of silents are a niche market, often with little to no profit involved and produced on a shoestring budget, but there’s really no excuse for not even including a relatively cheap and perfectly acceptable piano accompaniment. Hitch is a little unlucky in that some discs of his films – most of them for Downhill – have been released sans score, but they’re all listed so be guided accordingly. If you do acquire one of the scoreless DVDs and are casting around for suitable accompanying music, I recommend trying Mozart’s String Quartets; they’re truly sublime in any context but especially this one, and always work for me.

Of the only two scored pre-restoration DVDs, from France and Japan, the latter has a PAL-NTSC transfer and its jazz score isn’t entirely effective, often not even matching the onscreen action. But the PAL French disc’s unique orchestral score is highly recommended and it has the bonus of the only restored transfer of Waltzes from Vienna! However, back to the somebody boo-booed department: the French Universal 2012 reissue DVD sleeve claims it contains Juno and the Paycock as a bonus, but it’s actually identical to the previous 2007 disc. Nonetheless, both are absolute gems and an essential part of any serious Hitch fan’s collection.

Restored transfer

The restored transfer shows some differences between the three BDs. Criterion’s colours are noticeably deeper and more saturated than the French and Spanish. You’d never know without doing a side-by-side comparison but I give the latter two the edge, as Criterion’s richer palette comes at the slight expense of shadow detail. The BFI decided 20fps was the optimum speed for their restoration, equalling 105min. The French and Spanish adhere to it, while for some reason Criterion chose to run their transfer slightly slower, at 109min. Lastly, all three BDs have the different but equally adept new piano scores.

Isabel Jeans in Downhill (1927, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Isabel Jeans, about to do our fallen hero a mischief.

However, Criterion’s Lodger disc (region A) easily wins overall by virtue of its extra film and copious extras. As for the Euro BDs, Divisa (region B) has the ubiquitous “The Early Years” featurette (1999, 24min), a slideshow and several text-based extras. Elephant Films (region 0) has similar extras on all five of their Hitch BDs: the aforementioned “Early Years”, two film intro and Hitchcock 9 featurettes with Jean-Pierre Dionnet (both in French, 9min) and a short picture gallery. But the French BD also has unnecessary, unforgivable forced subs, though strangely they’re optional on the equivalent DVD. Therefore, Spain narrowly comes out on top for the film itself. There are comparative screenshots of several Downhill transfers here and here.

Hannah Jones (standing) and Isabel Jeans in Downhill (dir. by Alfred Hitchcock, 1927)

Hannah Jones (standing) with Isabel Jeans contemplating a future of unearned luxury. Altogether: “Now, I ain’t sayin’ she a gold digger…

Note that among the hordes of poor quality Hitchcock bootlegs to be avoided, there is a fourth BD (and DVD) from prolific pirates Indigo in Germany. They go by many names and methods, and here have ripped a 105min transfer of the tinted restoration from BD or a TV broadcast and stripped it to B&W, as this comparison bears out. Excepting the US Criterion listed above, also avoid any shoddy pirates on Amazon Prime, such as that also from Indigo.

Ivor Novello in Downhill (1927, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Oo-er! Rodders balks at the prospect of raunch (gulp).


More Ivor Novello on home video

Apart from Downhill, The Lodger and its remake, poor old Ivor hasn’t been too well served on home video, with only a few of his several dozen screen works available for viewing. It’s grimly appropriate for the man who, despite his many incredible achievements and inestimable contributions to British culture, is perhaps most noteworthy for having penned those immortal lines, “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” I’m not kidding. These are all the legit viewing options I could track down; just avoid the numerous bootlegs of his copyrighted talkies, in particular the many US and Euro rip-offs of King’s Rhapsody starring Errol Flynn, which has only one official release to date.

  • I Lived With You (1933) UK R2 DVD (Renown, 2011) – from his 1932 play and one of the best British films of the 1930s; get it!
  • Autumn Crocus (1934) UK R2 4-film/2-DVD Ealing Studios Rarities Collection: Volume 13 (Network, 2014) – his final film
  • The Dancing Years (1950) UK R2 DVD (Network, 2015) – based on his hit 1939 play
  • King’s Rhapsody (1955) UK R2 DVD (Network, 2014) – based on his hit 1949 musical

Ivor Novello by Angus McBean, 1947

Ivor Novello by Angus McBean, 1947

Biographies:


More Robin Irvine on home video

I’ve compiled a complete rundown here of the survival and availability of all his screen works.


For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

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